We were in our typical morning routine, propped up in bed with our iPads reading the news and checking Facebook. Staring at her iPad Sanderijn said, “Isn’t it strange that every time people ask one of the Republican candidates for president about climate change they answer ‘I don’t know … I am not a scientist.'”
She went on, “Why is it climate change is the one thing they feel they are not qualified to have an opinion on?” She thoughtfully added that these guys don’t seem to respond similarly when asked about other areas of policy.
Which got me thinking. Imagine a presidential candidate who says …
I don’t know about education policy because I am not a teacher.
I don’t know about foreign policy because I am not a diplomat.
I don’t know about military intervention because I am not a soldier.
I don’t know about tax policy because I am not a CPA.
I don’t know about crime and punishment because I am neither a policeman nor a judge.
I don’t know about health care policy because I am not a doctor.
I don’t know about moral values because I am not clergy. (ok, Mike Huckabee maybe but that’s whole different story).
Wouldn’t it be interesting if candidates showed the same humility on other policy issues that some candidates are showing on climate change?
Oh, and by the way, 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity.
I go to one.
Church, that is.
I hear that going to church is becoming increasingly rare. That’s according to the latest survey by Pew Research. They say the number of people going to church is dwindling. Ok, they say it is dropping like a stone, actually. The biggest drop off appears to be millennials, including millennials with young children.
I think that’s too bad. I feel it is too bad mostly for reasons of faith and belief. But there are practical reasons as well.
So for all the “nones” out there, even if you feel that church isn’t for you, I’d ask you to reconsider.
Let me give you three practical things you (and your children) can learn from going to church. Or, for that matter, the mosque or synagogue.
First, at church you learn how to sit still for an hour. This is an extremely practical skill. It gets you ready for all those dreadful meetings and conference calls you will have to endure at work. And for your children it is an absolute God send (pun intended). I teach a lot of kids and let me tell you, we’re losing the art of “sitting still.”
Sure, your kids are going to tell you that they are bored. Hey, depending on what church you go to you might even be bored. But haven’t you heard? Being bored is a good thing. In fact, all the latest studies show that people’s besting thinking and creativity comes through boredom.
Go to church. Sit still. And yes, get bored. You’re best thinking depends on it.
Second, at church you learn the concept of giving and philanthropy.
In my faith we practice tithing or giving ten percent of our income. This always leads to the question, “Is it ten percent of “gross” or ten percent of “net”? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that many boomers like me who were brought up in church saw Mom and Dad drop their envelop in the plate and were instructed at a very early age to do the same.
The idea of generosity, particularly for the poor and disenfranchised, is common across many faiths. But church teaches you how to make this a habit, how to weave it into your lifestyle at an early age.
One of the many challenges charitable organizations face today is the decline of the institutional donor. The new generation of donors are “situational” donors. That’s ok, but not great. It is hard to imagine great organizations like Red Cross or American Cancer Society being built by situational donors. Church teaches you that you should give back and support causes even when there’s no earthquake in Haiti or drought in the Sudan. That you should give all the time. Regularly. Dependably. So that organizations that are doing good work can actually do good work.
Finally, church makes you think about big things. At least it should. Mine does.
When I say big things, I mean really big things. Understanding good. And bad. Purpose. Meaning. Destiny. Love. Sacrifice. Truth. Mortality.
Heady stuff. Big stuff. The most important stuff in life, really.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would admit these aren’t the things we spend most of our time thinking about. We spend most of our time thinking about whether we left the iron on. Or something like that. And we think about stuff a lot. At work we recently did a national study on what people think about most. At number one was “friends and family.” That’s encouraging. But at number two – by a wide margin – was “money.” People think twice as much about money and finances as they do about life’s meaning and purpose.
I think that is too bad. Understandable, but too bad.
Church helps correct that. Every Sunday here come all those really big things again. Origin. Purpose. Meaning. Morality. Destiny. Good and Evil. Truth. Mortality.
It isn’t that church is the only place where a person can learn how to sit still, practice philanthropy and search for meaning. But its track record is pretty good on all three fronts. And you might even stumble over some of that faith and belief stuff.
So think about it.
I’ve told many stories and written many posts about my Dad. Folks who know me – particularly my family – have heard these stories many, many times.
I’ve rarely written or told stories about my Mom.
And that is just the way I think my Mom would like it.
Many people write about their Moms and Dads in saintly terms. But for those who were fortunate enough to know my Mom, few would argue that Joyce Johnson, daughter of Ola and Clarence, big sister to Dale and Beth, wife of “J. E.” Johnson, and mother of Steve, Janet, Jim and Jerry, was as close to the model of true Christian living as this world has ever seen.
My mother taught me many, many things. All were taught by example. She gave few lectures. When around her you watched, you marveled, and you began to understand what words “character”, “virtue”, and “love” meant.
Among other things, Mom showed me the way of:
Extreme humility. My mother’s humility was breathtaking. It was so vast and deep it is even now hard for me to capture into words. In every thing, in every aspect of daily life, she put herself last. The most horrifying thought for her was that she might be an inconvenience to others. For Mom, it was never about her. She always focused on “the other” whether that be family (most often) or anyone else that might be within her tender reach.
Constant service. My mother was constantly serving. The only time she sat down completely for a meal was at a restaurant. Whether at her home or someone else’s house, she’d sit long enough to be polite but soon slip quietly away to fill a glass, replenish a plate, wash a dish, prepare for the next course. There was a fascinating calmness to it all. Even in daily life, Mom’s movements were measured, efficient, and meaningful. She was constantly in motion, working in a simple, methodical and purposeful way.
Quiet resolve. Before there was “no drama Obama” there was my Mom. Underneath her generous, quiet and humble attitude was a rock-hard steeliness and resolve that defined indomitable. Once set, her direction never veered. She epitomized “endurance.” Nothing caused her to waver – neither the burden of physical pain nor the lure of physical comfort. Whether it was past the well-meaning entreaties of her children and family, or the challenges posed by new places and new faces, Mom’s course never faltered.
Understated bravery. Mom was brave. Not in the way that Hollywood likes to define it. But in its truest sense. She dared to do things that frightened, intimidated and outright scared her. From crossing the Pacific on a rusty military boat, alone with three children, two of whom were in diapers to moving to a new state, and a new community, alone, after losing her beloved husband of forty plus years. She faced things she feared without fanfare, fuss, or complaining.
Universal kindness. In my fifty-eight years of living, I cannot remember or recall my Mom saying an unkind word about anyone. Ever. It is an incredible claim but amazingly true. To be sure, there were things people did that she disapproved of (and I know there were times when I fell into that category!). And occasionally she would let you know that. But even then, her words were so tempered, her manner so understanding, her objections so qualified and understated you had to search and be attentive just to realize that she felt something amiss.
Unshakable faith. Mom’s faith in Jesus was simple, direct and unshakable. It is said that there are five Christian gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the life of the Christian. People rarely read the first four. I was blessed with the fifth gospel. The Gospel of Mom. With Mom there was no need for complicated systematic theology. We are all equal, all created in God’s image. We are called “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And the reconciliation of justice and mercy lie in the person of Jesus Christ. A life of grace, forgiveness and sacrifice.
Unfathomable love. You can wrap all of the above up in a single word. Love. Never have I seen or experienced human love that rivaled that of my Mom. This was particularly true of the love between her and my Dad. Mom’s love was the perfect mixture of adoration, passion, respect, kindness and devotion.
Thousands of years ago God reached out and gave of himself to redeem humanity. In the form of Jesus, God gave us a real living breathing reflection of God’s true nature. So I believe it only appropriate and a fitting interpretation of God’s will, that Mom was called Home at the same time we celebrate God’s ultimate gift.
Mom left us yesterday, Christmas Eve 2014.
I spoke with her briefly that morning. Amidst all the pain and difficulty of her final hours, Mom’s last words to me were “Merry Christmas!”
That said it all. Uplifting humility. Abiding faith. Enduring love.
“Merry Christmas,” Mom.
You were God’s greatest gift to so many of us.
We will miss you.
“How are you?”
It is perhaps the most asked question in life. It is a question asked between everyone from common strangers to intimate family members.
Think about it. How many times a day are you asked “how are you?” Now count the number of times a day you ask that of others. “How are you?”
In some rare cases we actually want to know the answer! But most times not. It is just a thing we say. And nine times out of ten we get the standard response.
Occasionally we’ll get a “great” or “awful” which often is very problematic because we then feel obliged to follow up as to “why” and are now committed to having a real conversation which we never intended to have because we really didn’t care how they were doing we were just using as a placeholder for hello.
“How are you?”
I recently started an experiment. When asked “how are you?” I started to respond with a phrase I often heard my father say and it went like this, “Well, I’m doing better than I deserve.”
This really throws people off. It is not the ordinary “fine” and has the effect of causing people to think and react. Typically, reactions fall into one or two camps.
There’s the group that will challenge the “better than I deserve” response. Sometimes quite forcefully.
Now I’m sure most of those who object to the unusual “better than I deserve” response to the standard “how ya doing?” question are well meaning, well intentioned and wanting to be helpful and supportive. They see (or hear!) the “better than I deserve” phrase as one of despondency. I sense they interpret it as someone who questions their own self worth and so is in need of a bit of affirmation. Their response seems to be …
“Oh that’s not true. I don’t know you but you seem like a nice enough guy. I’m sure you’re deserving of a lot of good things. I know that I am. Everybody is deserving of good things. So cheer up! Take a little credit for yourself! Run a victory lap and be proud of all the good things that are happening to you.”
Then there are those that “get it.” At least get it in the sense of what my Dad originally meant.
For him the “better than I deserve” response was an expression of gratitude. We have so much, even when we have little. We are so blessed, even when things are pretty crappy. Just the joy of “being” and experiencing life is an undeserved privilege.And then there are all the stupid, silly and sometimes downright mean and awful things that we’ve done that we have somehow gotten away with! If we were all accountable for everything we did and got what we “deserved” for the completely dumb things we do I doubt many of us would survive past our teens!
I know that is true for me.
I remember complaining to my Dad once that “life isn’t fair!” I will always remember his response. “You better be glad, son, that life isn’t fair. Because if we all got what we deserved we’d be in big trouble!”
Months ago, my daughter wrote down the toast she made at her little sister’s wedding. It has been by far the most popular and widely read thing on the Juicebar. Ever. It was about expectations and the joy of not having any (expectations, that is). Seeing everything, good, bad, and indifferent, as a blessing.
So if you ask “how are you?” and if I respond “better than I deserve,” know that I believe this to be a very, very good thing.
I am not a screen (although as I write this, I am looking at a screen). You are not a screen (but you’re reading this on a screen, right?).
Today is Thanksgiving.
Thank you! But most of all, thanks for all those not-so-great things in my life and the people who love me in spite of them all.
I am reminded of how Jesus’ taught how NOT to give thanks. Actually, he was teaching people how not to pray but I put praying and “giving thanks” in the same general category.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells the story of how this one guy in church “gives thanks.” It went sorta like this …
“Thanks, God, for making me such a great person. It is not so much that you’ve made me handsome, smart, and wealthy, which you did (thanks for that!) but you’ve also made so good and kind and wonderful. And you know what? I am! I love my family. I give to charity. I do good works. So thanks, God. Great job!”
Jesus wasn’t a fan. He did, however, like an other guy’s “give thanks” prayer which went a bit like this …
“God, I’m a miserable, wretched, no good schmuck. Every now and then I do something right but it is more luck or someone else’s grace than anything I can claim. Thanks for giving me all the things I never deserved. Thanks for being nice and kind, even when I was a jerk (which, I am sorta all the time because, well, I’m human). So thanks, God. I’m grateful for all the good things you give because it isn’t what I really deserve.”
So here’s to being thankful for all things I don’t deserve. For all the people who did nice to me despite myself.
For all those folks at work, at worship and at play who put up with my insecurities, pettiness and biases. People who should go screaming out of the door during lectures, rants and a host of poor decisions on my part. But who stay, work incredibly hard, and make good things happen despite all I do to make it otherwise.
Thanks to my children, their husbands and my children’s children for loving and caring for me even through those times when I was distant and unavailable. Perhaps even more, thanks for being loving, kind and tolerant when I get preachy and judgmental. And thanks for loving and caring for each other far above and beyond anything that I could have been responsible for.
And thanks most of all to my wife. Who continually overlooks my many, many faults –my bad habits, my stubbornness, my moodiness. Who is there for me throughout the many business trips and late nights working at home. Who – like my work colleagues – has daily moments where she would legitimately merit running out of the door screaming. Who I am convinced loves me in spite of who I am and all the stupid things I do.
This is what, I believe, God gives to us. The ability to give, forgive and love beyond measure, beyond merit, beyond reason.
But as importantly, it is the ability to recognize that we are blessed and are to be thankful not because of ourselves, but rather in spite of ourselves.
So thanks to all of you out there.
And thanks be to God who sacrifices of himself for all of us.
Justice. It is a good thing, right? But what exactly is it? How does justice happen? And how do you pursue “justice” in a way that gives some opening for that other great thing we call “mercy?” (I am convinced that if justice is simply defined as “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” then we’d all be blind and toothless.)
Recently Pope Francis called for the end of the death penalty and lifetime imprisonment. He called these acts “penal populism”. He said they “promise to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.”
What is the difference between “punishing the crime” and “pursuing social justice?” I found out a couple of days ago from a young man named Fritz Howard while spending a week at Tubal, a Christian vocational school just outside of Belize City.
Mr. Howard is the man kneeling in the photo. You really shouldn’t mess with him. An imposing but approachable man, he has dedicated his life to working with young men who are “at risk”. Before his current job, he ran vocational programs and ministry at one of Belize’s largest prisons. Now he is the full-time construction teacher at Tubal, a school for young men and women .
Mr. Howard was a wonderful teacher and mentor. It was clear that these young boys held him in high respect. For them, Mr. Howard was simply: “sir.”
A group of us worked side-by-side with Mr. Howard and several young men building a house for a woman in need. Every day we’d head over to the work site early in the morning, come back to the school facility for lunch, then back to the site for several hours in the afternoon. All in 90 degree heat and humidity.
Now the students at Tubal are wonderful young men and women. Respectful. Hard working. Considerate and caring for each other. They were a joy to work with. But kids are kids and sometimes they do stupid things. And one day, a while we were at lunch, someone – almost certainly a student – carved into the leather seat of Mr. Howard’s motorcycle something, well, stupid.
Mr. Howard walked over to the bike which was parked underneath the canteen where the kids hung out. There was a quick conclave with students. As much of the dialogue was in creole, I didn’t catch a lot of it. But I could tell by the tone that it was, well, intense! The group dispersed and soon there was a bit of buzz about a boy identified as the (extremely) likely suspect.
A few of us jumped into the van heading back to the work site. I talked to Mr. Howard about the incident. He was understandably very upset. But what I found fascinating was I didn’t sense he was wasn’t “mad” or “angry”. He was wounded, hurt, concerned, troubled. But not angry.
He took a call from someone. I don’t know exactly who it was. Likely someone from the school. Tubal has a “zero tolerance” policy – a “one strike and you’re out” type of place. And I could only guess what was what was being proposed on the call was to expel the student. But Mr. Howard had a different perspective. What I heard him say on that phone call went something like this:
“I don’t want to kick him out of school. If we do that he’ll learn nothing. He will only end up being bitter about himself, bitter about the school and get in trouble with his relatives and bitter about that as well. No. We’ve got too much of that bitterness already with these kids.
And I don’t want a written apology. Written apologies don’t accomplish anything. It is just a piece of paper. It means nothing to me and it won’t mean anything to the young man.
No, I want this boy to stand in front of the class, admit what he did, apologize, and explain to me why he did what he did. I want him to do this in front of everyone. Every student from the school.
We need to show this young man that he always has the option of acknowledging his wrong-doings and taking responsibility for them. He needs to be able to learn to do that – learn to humble himself – yes, even humiliate himself – stand up and admit to everyone what he has done. And the other boys need to be able to see this young man do it. He needs to confront this, apologize and explain this to me and to everyone. That is all I want. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Have him do that. I will accept his apology. We will shake hands. Then we will put this behind us, and he and I will go from there. Then we can build things back up. Then I can help him and teach him. He can stay, learn, and make something of himself.
If he’s not willing to do that then I agree he’ll have to go. But we need to give him a choice and give everyone a chance to confess, seek forgiveness and following that, know they can have acceptance.”
It was perhaps one of the most brave, constructive and genuine attempts at “justice” I had ever seen. Mr. Howard insisted on “pursuing social justice” over “punishing the crime.”
I think Pope Francis would have been proud.